Walking through the Bear Pit, the busy underpass that bridges the gap between Broadmead, Stokes Croft and St Pauls, it is clear to see improvements have already begun taking place. And it isn't just in terms of the aims set out by the Bear Pit Improvement Group – a group that is supported by the Bristol Civic Society among a number of other groups including the Bristol Council and the University of the West of England. It is in the people themselves who are now using the area to socialise and relax in.
A week ago, the Bristol Civic Society took part in a Civic Day – a national initiative aimed at getting individuals and groups to take an active interest in their towns, to use their public spaces and to encourage a feeling of community in lesser used areas of town. Jo and Miles, two of the younger members of the Society organised and ran the event in the Bear Pit, in an effort to do just this.
A number of stalls selling jewellery, arts and crafts, clothes, books and refreshments were set up in the Bear Pit, as well as a podium called Speakers' Corner, where members of the public had their say on issues concerning them about Bristol and the local area. A number of live musicians also played, giving the whole day a festival feel, whilst staying true to the Bear Pit's busking culture. A newer breed of performers also showed up – a young group of lads practising par cours – a new form of urban sport where they use the urban landscape as their playground, literally.
Those that spoke on the Speakers' Corner podium ranged from public figures to those just passing through, and a number of issues were raised. Issues such as how the Bear Pit can be improved and protected and how the Elin Pentecostal Church has done its bit to feed the homeless and needy of Stokes Croft. It also played host to some non-Bear Pit related opinions about the recent Stokes Croft riots and how the council should best look after Bristol's elderly and infirm.
Councillor Dr. John Rogers announced that, after having had a total of eleven different departments responsible for separate aspects of the Bear Pit in the past, the council has delegated Andrew Whitehead to take sole charge of the area himself. He said that the Bear Pit has been neglected due to its previously fragmented management; describing it as a “set of warring tribes who share a common central heating system.” He added that the Bear Pit represents a symbol of a more unified Bristol, due to its location: bridging the gap between the big businesses of Broadmead and Cabot Circus and the residents and independent businesses of St Pauls and Stokes Croft.
Geraldine, a local resident, spoke out about how impressed she has been with the improvements made to area in the past ten years. She said that Stokes Croft is a fascinating, original and vibrant space in Bristol that stands against the “Soviet Russia” of shopping districts across the UK.
The Civic Day was also paid a visit by the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Geoff Gollop. In interview, he enthused about the art installations in the Hotwells Cumberland Basin and said that more needs to be done to promote public art in Bristol. He said that Banksy has done a lot to put Bristol on the map in terms of street art and he hopes to see more of it.
This is one of the aims of the Bear Pit Improvement Group. Already murals have been installed in the subways, adding light and colour to what has been, up until now, quite frankly a dingy part of Bristol. Other aims are to provide more seating, a Wifi connection, a television screen, like those in Millennium Square, and flower beds nurtured by volunteers so as to form a pretty, communal social hub within the very centre of the city.
I have been back to the Bear Pit a week on, and it feels as if this change is already taking place. There were people reading books, chatting on the grass banks and enjoying the sunshine. If you want to see for yourself, there are plans for the Bear Pit posted within the subways detailing what we can look forward to in the coming months.
3 July 2011, Dominique Coeur